The Power of the Maternal Mind

Histoire générale et particulière du développement des corps organisés / par M. Coste.<br />

Jean Jacques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste (1807-1873). Histoire générale et particulière du développement des corps organisés. Paris : V. Masson ; Leipzig : L. Michelsen, 1847-1859. MU Health Sciences Library Rare Book Room 591.3 C824h Atlas

“...the traces of these ideas travel through the arteries towards the heart, and thus ray out in all the blood; and... they can sometimes be determined by some of the mother's actions, and be imprinted on the members of the child who is forming in her womb.”
Rene Descartes

Aristotle stressed the importance of the environment in utero for shaping the ideal offspring.  If the mother provided a perfect environment for the embryo, Aristotle claimed the child would be male and resemble his father.  Boys who resembled their mothers and females resembling either parent were the results of defects in the maternal environment.

Ancient and medieval physicians came up with various techniques and preparations for making sure the uterine environment was as hospitable as possible.  The most powerful pregnancy aid, however, was the mind.  Soranus of Ephesus, an authority on gynecology of the first and second century AD, thought that a pregnant woman's thoughts and experiences could shape her fetus.  Soranus recounts a story of an ugly man and his plain wife, who gazed at an idealized statue as each of their children was conceived.  Their offspring, according to Soranus, turned out to be beautiful.  The message was clear: mothers-to-be were to expose themselves to attributes they wanted their child to possess in order to transmit them to their offspring.  

This idea of a mother's mind affecting her children was not limited to the ancient world.  Over a thousand years after Soranus, Aristoteles Master-Piece, an early obstetrical manual published in the sixteenth century, claimed, "though a Woman be in unlawful Copulation, yet if fear or any thing else causes her to fix her mind upon her Husband, the Child will resemble him, tho' he never got it."  Rene Descartes, writing in 1630, referred to birthmarks as "marks that are impressed on children by the imagination of the mother."  

Although we no longer think that gazing on beautiful statues or having disturbing thoughts during pregnancy can alter the appearance of a fetus, researchers have found that epigenetic factors such as a pregnant woman's experiences and mental states can in fact affect her unborn child.  Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, conducted a longitudinal study of pregnant survivors of the 9/11 attacks in New York.  Her research revealed that pregnant women who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their second or third trimester had abnormally low levels of cortisol.  A year later, their babies did too, and they were more likely than other babies to be distressed by new stimuli.

The Power of the Maternal Mind